by Hammoud Mounassar
Sat Jan 1, 2011
SANAA (AFP) – Yemen's parliament agreed in principle on Saturday to make constitutional amendments that could see President Ali Abdullah Saleh rule for life, and will hold a formal vote on the matter later this year.
Despite opposition protests and calls by the United States for a vote delay, some 170 members of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party voted in favour of the constitutional amendments, an AFP journalist said.
Only two independent MPs who attended the meeting called for postponing the vote which sparked an opposition protest outside parliament.
In line with the constitution the amendments will be discussed in detail on March 1 and then they will be submitted to a referendum to be held simultaneously with parliamentary polls on April 27, a GPC member said.
The proposed constitutional amendments stipulate cancelling the limit of two consecutive terms for which a president can be elected and reducing the presidential term from its current seven years to five.
If the ruling party-dominated parliament passes the amendment, Saleh could become president for life of the Arabian peninsula nation.
In power since 1978, Saleh was elected for the first time in 1999 by direct universal suffrage for a term of seven years. His second term, which began in 2006 expires in 2013.
On Friday the United States urged Yemen's parliament not to go ahead with any move to amend the constitution.
"We continue to believe that the interests of the Yemeni people will be best served through... negotiations," State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The US call appeared to be a bid to avert a collapse of a political dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition, which Washington sponsors as part of the Friends of Yemen group.
Opposition and independent MPs who control 65 seats in the 301-strong parliament have warned that adopting the amendments would "destroy what remains of the foundations of democracy" in Yemen.
Such action will also "pave the way for hereditary succession," the opposition groups said in a joint statement on Saturday.
Saleh's opponents accuse the 68-year-old president of grooming his eldest son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the army, to succeed him.
Saturday's voting could also heighten already simmering tensions in Yemen, where the government is facing a growing Al-Qaeda threat, a Zaidi Shiite rebellion in the north and growing calls for secession in the south.
The constitutional amendments "will result in a complete break between the north and south and will destroy any hope of partnership" Ali Acshal, a southern member of the the Islamist Al-Islah (Reform) Party, warned after the vote.
Al-Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party are the two major opposition parties in Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula's only republic.
"If the ruling party goes ahead with these amendments... it will cause disorder in the country and open it up to foreign interference," Ali Abed Rabbo al-Qadi, who heads a bloc of five independent MPs, told the session.
However, the head of GPC's parliamentary group Sultan al-Barakani said the ruling party will go ahead with its reforms.
"We will continue with the amendments and if the opposition had anything to say they should have come to parliament" on Saturday instead of staging a protest outside the building, he said.
Opposition and independent MPs held a sit-in outside the parliament carrying banners reading "January 1, 2011, the day the constitution and the republic were slain," according to an AFP journalist.